Whither the English garden?

New trends in designing gardens from Europe may not be right for our green and pleasant land. Mary Keen reports
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At Dinner parties in the Seventies, people used to announce the Death of the Novel and discuss "whither fiction". In rather the same way, gardeners have been flagging the end of the English garden for the last decade or more. Traditional intricate gardens of rooms, like Sissinghurst and Hidcote, or those Barnsley-inspired glorified cottage gardens, are no longer, it seems, enough. Words like "doldrums", "dead end" and "derivative" have been heard on the lips of young designers. No longer is "old-fashioned" a compliment. At the end of the last century, Trollope's heroine, Eleanor, in Barchester Towers liked "everything old-fashioned" including gardens. Now there is a whiff of stale pot-pourri hanging around the expression. Old-fashioned is not cool.

It is true that the gardens made by the old school are hard work and this may account for some of their lost popularity. Abundant flower beds filled with changing colours and huge varieties of plants are not easy to manage. Old-style intensive gardening puts a peony or a rose, which likes strong soil and a rich diet, next to silver-leafed artemisia that thrives on starvation. It is not a green approach, and life is easier if you separate plants into areas where they can get the conditions they need.

Cool young designers criticise the way old-style gardeners waste water and make work for themselves. For the last couple of years, there has been talk of the more ecological and efficient style of planting which is found on the continent. Particularly in Germany. Articles about grasses and German use of perennials have appeared in the press: in theory it all sounds admirable, the big question is, does it work?

One of Euro gardening's most passionate advocates is Noel Kingsbury, who defines the German perennial movement as "half-way between a conventional herbaceous border and wildflower meadow, where plant selection is dictated by site conditions". He has written a book on the subject. What he says he aims to do is to bridge the gap between the botanically inclined, amateur gardeners and the landscape architects. The plantspeople cannot see the wood for the trees, while the landscapers prefer patterns of forests on paper to textures and sizes of leaves.

German landscapers have started to plant perennials in naturalistic drifts in a matrix of grass, but in public parks here, where people expect flowers, there seems to be nothing but bedding out. There used to be a marvellous herbaceous border in Regent's Park, but it was abandoned because it was too difficult to manage: it is easier to create an impact from colour with bedding. Lawns are cheaper to maintain than flower beds, but if people expect flowers and colour, the means and the labour must be found to provide it. Noel Kingsbury thinks that English public gardens would benefit from some German-style planting: he claims that flowers could be produced for much less than the current labour involved in bedding out and that German-style planting would restore variety to our parks.

An illustration of the Kingsbury theory can actually be seen in the gardens of Cowley Manor near Cheltenham. This former industrialist's pile is now a nursing home, around which the enlightened owner has allowed Noel Kingsbury to have his German way.

In theory, it is all so convincing and it is a brave experiment. However, on the basis of two visits, one in April and one in early summer, I cannot pronounce it a success. The Emperor's New Clothes springs all too readily to mind.

What I saw, last year, is huge mud amoebas about 50 yards long, sometimes more, with some unshowy small plants planted at intervals throughout. The mud matrix is poisoned grass to give the perennials a head start, the idea then is to let the grass creep back once the plants are established. Three "buts" here. In Germany, they seem not to mind long grass waving between the perennials, in England we think it looks weedy. Anyone who has tried to manage that hardest of all habitats, the modern meadow garden, will know how unacceptable it becomes after the Oxeye daisies and the grasses have collapsed. It has to be cut. This means there will be few flowers in July, whereas most herbaceous borders peak in the late summer months.

The second "but" is harder to hammer home. Our climate is warmer than Europe's in winter, so often the grass goes on growing. I suspect the perennials may be drowned in a sea of green. My last reservation is that establishing these naturalistic plantings requires more, rather than less, labour and large-scale poisoning and meticulous policing of the balance of nature is not nearly as much fun as gardening.

Besides, all of this is hardly new. William Robinson, who gardened around the time that Trollope's heroine was praising old fashions, tried something similar in his "wild garden", which he developed as a reaction to high Victorian bedding. He grew thug perennials like poppies and peonies in the grass. Naturalised daffodils are Robinson's greatest legacy.

Christopher Lloyd's meadow at great Dixter remains the best 20th-century example of a wild garden where exotics are also allowed. Certainly one of the most experimental of gardeners, Lloyd is, like Kingsbury, trying prairie plants in grass, which are grown from collected seed. He is an indomitable experimenter, but he did express some doubts about the dense growth of English grass. On light, limestone soils the Kingsbury technique may work, and it will be worth returning to Cowley this summer to see the progress. It may, however, be a little early to start plant ing perennials in the lawn. Even the arch Euro gardener admits that this is a style that works best writ large. But you have to admire him for doing it.

'The New Perennial Garden' by Noel Kings-bury is published by Frances Lincoln at pounds 20